Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Eric Conway: What an extraordinary musical event was held this weekend at the Murphy Fine Arts Center! The vision of Vincent Stringer and James Lee was finally realized.

James Lee III

Vincent Dion Stringer

Eric Conway writes:

Hello Morgan Fine and Performing Arts Community,

What an extraordinary musical event was held this weekend at the Murphy Fine Arts Center!  The vision of Vincent Stringer and James Lee was finally realized via Saturday night’s performance. 

We had a healthy number on hand to hear this new work, approximately five hundred attending the concert.  I personally would have loved to have seen twice the number, especially given the fact that we had a feature-article by the Baltimore Sun principal music critic Tim Smith on the front page of Saturday’s newspaper, see link to article below.

Although the main entrée or the evening was the premier of Mother’s Lament, there were some other musical appetizers on the first half of the program: 1) Selections by a local youth ensemble Singing Sensations 2) Two solo pieces for voice and piano composed by Stringer and Lee sung by Robert Cantrell, baritone 3) Ending the first half with two selections by the Morgan State University Choir. 

Beyond the musical premier, this concert was a springboard for a forum to discuss the violence in our community.  Interspersed throughout the program were short videos of personal reflections from mothers who had lost their sons to gun violence.  It was decided to pre-tape these expressions, knowing that it would be difficult to talk about these personal experiences on such a big stage!

Finally after greetings from Morgan President, Dr. David Wilson, the raison d’être for us all to be in the hall began - Mother’s Lament.  I believe James Lee perfectly captured the spirit of the text of Vincent Stringer.  Often new music can be difficult to absorb upon first hearing.  I always tell my groups that the audience is at a distinct disadvantage to have to understand a piece upon first hearing, not having the luxury often of going back to hear again, like with movies.  Often art, reflects society.  James Lee’s music does exactly that in his writing style.  One can hear in James Lee’s music the discord in our society.  In preparing the chorus, I must say that it was not easy to teach parts to my choir, i.e., it was difficult to hear the chorus pitches with the very different writing of the orchestral accompaniment.  The chorus even upon the first reading connected with the piece because of the power of the text.  Many of my choir members thanked me for having them to sing this piece.

Saturday night’s musical performance went very well, especially for a premiere.  Marquita Lister, another Morgan faculty member, sang beautifully, with wonderful spin on her higher pitches.  Conductor Julien Benichou approached the piece with the passion that he always gives to his performances.  Although we were not able to secure Soulful Symphony for this concert, Mid-Atlantic Symphony performed this piece well.  Many orchestra musicians shared with me how much they enjoyed playing this piece. I must confess, that in bed at night, I still hear the text set to the music in my head:  “you could be murdered at seventeen  —  his dreams of summer float cold and still   —  so many names unknown . . . "

At the end of the evening, everyone who attended received a very provocative performance.  Mission accomplished!  The mission was for this composition to be a vehicle to continue the discussions on how we as a community could stop the senseless killing of our young African-American men and youth.  I originally believed that there might be a sad feeling of despair in the house after this concert.  Au contraire, persons who attended the event, left this a very thoughtful reflection at our current plight.  Perhaps attendees left with a sense of optimism.   For mothers who had lost sons who attended,  some healing may have occurred on Saturday night! 

See link to videotape of the 1st half of the concert below.
See link to MP3 of the James Lee’s Mother’s Lament below.
See attached some photos from the evening as well as copies of the program.
See a few pages from the actual program with the powerful text of Vincent Stringer


Eric Conway, D.M.A.
Fine and Performing Arts Department, Chair
Morgan State University

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